An incredibly common question, spanning cultures and eras, probably from time immemorial, is:
If you had the chance to go back in time and change one thing, what would you pick?
I am sure that once language got complex enough to verbalize such things, one australopithecine said to another: “If you could go back and change one thing, what would it be?” And the other one said, “Hm. Well, I guess we’ve basically done two things, come down out of the trees, and have a more upright posture. I guess I will go with stay in the trees.” And then the other one said “Really? I totally would have gone with the not standing up like this. My back is killing me.” And then the other one would warn the group about savannah predators, and they would run off to safety. And probably the first thing one would say is “See, if we were still in the trees…”
The idea of Time Travel has been around forever. Be it Scrooge’s trip with the ghost of Christmas past, the astronomical number of genre fiction books, shows, and stories about mad scientists and/or accidental travelers, or the mythology of ages past where the traveler sleeps for decades and wakes to a totally unfamiliar world.
Before A Christmas Carol, characters usually traveled to a future world of wonders, or perhaps horrors. But the trend of the recent past is not one of moving forward. Stories often focus on going back and either learn from or fix the past. To go and change something that would then make your return to the present happier, or so you imagine.
The fantasy scenario is Marty McFly going back and fixing his father’s self-confidence, and in a darker vein, preventing his mother from an implied sexual assault. Viewed within the context of the time, one would have to gloss over the fact that both law enforcement and social mores in Hill Valley were hugely problematic. Especially as the Tannen family has apparently been a pox on the region for more than a hundred years, and absolutely nothing seems to have fixed that.
From a purely scientific standpoint, the only way it becomes possible is to break the current laws of physics and understanding of the universe by imagining processes that are unprovable or by changing the nature of the universe to make it possible. My two favorite ways to do it would be impossible; i.e., a police phone box that is bigger on the inside, or a DeLorean with a flux capacitor. Theoretically, as Stephen Hawking postulated, a wormhole could exist that could take you from one place in spacetime to another, but it wouldn’t be anything but random as to where you found it, or where it would take you. Kind of like getting on whichever bus happens by and going wherever it goes. You might find yourself at the city dump, or in a palace, being smothered by a basket of puppies. Also, there is the “many worlds” theory, which is, by its very nature unprovable, says that every event can be happening all at the same time, with every conceivable outcome. So if you figured out a way to travel to the place in which the puppy basket existed, there would still be the place where you were at the city dump, but you would have switched places with the version of you who is having the better time. Kind of a bummer for the other guy, but hey, nobody’s perfect. It would be like if you switched dates with your twin because you liked their partner better.
In any case, we must content ourselves with the convenient fiction of easy time travel, because it makes for a great “what if?” story.
I wonder, would I pick a personal change, like going back to my childhood and figuring out how to get in as employee #7 at Apple, or maybe kissing someone I should have kissed, or just giving myself a more specific role model to have followed? I tend to doubt it. Mostly because I would worry that there would be unintended changes to my timeline in which I might lose more than I gain by doing that. Suppose I’m fired from Apple because I cannot stand how obnoxious Steve Jobs is to me? Or what if I kiss someone, causing me never to meet my future wife? Maybe a role model leads me astray, and I end up penniless and insane, living in a sleeping bag behind an El Pollo Loco with that weird chicken smell as my constant companion while I obsessively sing the “Mahna Mahna” song to myself over and over, attempting to figure out its secret meaning, and I drink only cream soda and eat raw hamburger.
Where was I?
Oh yeah, the personal change or the alternative: a significant historical change. Everyone says they would go back in time and kill Hitler or prevent Lincoln or Kennedy’s assassination. And this to me would be way more interesting. If you’re going to change something without knowing what would happen, I figure in for a penny, in for a pound, right?
I would go back and prevent slavery from ever happening, but I would at least do it with some style.
Because I get to make up the scenario, I would have a TARDIS, and I would make sure by making sure that anyone who tries to subjugate people and turn them into slaves would receive a visit from Crazy Dracula. I would dress up as Dracula, and then I would put them in a body cast and a helmet and a full port-a-potty, and then I would tell them the reason why they are getting this treatment. Then I would close the door and roll them down a hill. Once at the bottom, I would ask them if they were ready to free their slaves.
I would repeat that process as many times as was necessary. Then I would go ahead in time to see if that worked. I assume I might have to do it in several different societies, but eventually, it might work.
It does make me wonder what things would look like after, though. As I said before, unintended consequences could follow, like now Led Zeppelin is a country music band, and everyone is a terrible cook, and tacos were never invented. A small price to pay, maybe, in comparison.